Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

I love Twitter, and I’ve learnt so much since I joined it a mere 4 year ago. Yet recently, I’m getting tired of having the same old arguments going round and round the same territory, with people seeing to talk past each other, using the same word to mean different things.  For example, take the word ‘engagement.’ To one person, this is obviously a great thing – who wouldn’t want their pupils absorbed in their learning? For this person, the opposite of engagement is disengagement, and surely nobody wants their pupils disengaged.  Yet for another person ‘engagement’ means something completely different. For them, it is shorthand for an approach to education that they reject; one that thinks the content of what we teach is inherently boring to many pupils, so therefore needs to be dressed up in ‘fun’, thereby tricking pupils into learning. For this person, anyone advocating ‘engagement’ has woefully low expectations of children and is short-changing them with fun ‘edutainment’ instead of substance. For such people, the opposite of ‘engagement’ is learning. So if these two people, with their different definitions of engagement have an exchange of views on Twitter, it will appear to each other that the person they are arguing with is advocating either disengagement or baby-sitting.

I had my own experience of this recently. I, in all innocence, used the word ‘delivery’ in the context of teaching. To my mind this is a perfectly harmless word. If pushed, I’d maybe link it to how Santa delivers eagerly awaited presents to excited children. (Yeah, all my lessons were that great…) But apparently ‘delivery’ is some sort of evil trigger word, with connotations of ramming pipes into the throats of geese and pumping them over full of grain in order to make fois gras.  It signalled my moral depravity. Yet I was just using it as a synonym for ‘teach.’

Each brings their own prior learning to the table. One person remembers their own terrible school experience of dull, dreary, soul crushing lessons that all but extinguished any desire to learn and is motivated by their resultant burning conviction to ensure their lessons breathe light, life and passionate interest into those who experience them.  The other cringes as they remember their earlier exhausting attempts to dupe pupils by disguising the learning with some complicated, ‘fun’ activity and subsequent relief when later on, they just started teaching directly and found that a much better way of arousing a passionate interest. No wonder they don’t agree. Both are fighting an enemy the other cannot see.[1]

This morning, I read this very interesting interview with Dylan Wiliam.  One of the bits that really got me thinking was this.

‘any teaching should start from what the learner already knows…teachers should ascertain this, and teach accordingly. The problem is that even with a new and unfamiliar topic, after 20 minutes teaching, students will have different understandings of the material, which the teacher needs to know about. What you call the curse of knowledge is part of that—we assume something is easier if we know it.’

Which resonated with something I’d read earlier this week by Harry Fletcher Webb about how when we teach adults, we often forget that they too, just like children, build on what they already know and sometimes form misunderstandings because connect the new stuff we are teaching to their prior knowledge in a faulty way. [2]

It seems rather pompous to say that when we tweet, we are seeking to ‘teach.’ Yet I certainly engage with Twitter in order to learn and indeed I have learnt an awful lot. And yes, sometimes I hope what I say will help other people learn. I am sure there are many reasons to go on twitter, to be entertained, for banter, for company, to show off, for that self-righteous thrill of point scoring, but also to be inspired, to learn things and to share what you have learnt with others, hoping that some may find it useful;  it’s that last reason that motivates me to write blogs.

As a teaching medium, Twitter has its drawbacks! A strict character limit, the torrent of ‘interruptions’ to one’s line of argument when all and sundry can comment, the conversation lurching off in bizarre directions, massive disputes about who actually, if anyone, is the teacher, who is worth listening too, the distraction of other threads, for you as well as anyone else…actually when I think about it, it’s amazing I’ve learnt anything from Twitter yet it has been incredibly powerful in my own learning.  Mainly because Twitter points me to blogs which have fewer of the shortcomings listed above and where I can learn from people I have chosen, by my act of clicking, to learn from. [3]Yet many of the people I engage with don’t have blogs and obviously not everybody who I interact with reads my blogs (the fools!)

All of which is a long prelude to what comes next. The more I argue over the same ground again and again, the more I am aware that I am being misunderstood. I am saying words which to me have a clear and obvious meaning yet they’re being taken to mean something quite different. I also know this works the other way around too and I completely misunderstand what other people are saying. For example, someone says ‘child-centred’ and, building on my prior experience, I imagine the crazy excesses of having to teach via an integrated day and how much more everybody learnt when I stopped doing that and actually taught children stuff. When they might mean something quite different. (Or they might not, that’s the problem, it’s hard to tell). It’s so easy when arguing with someone to imagine the worst possible version of what they are espousing, and the best possible version of what you are arguing for. If they do the same, that’s a recipe for more heat than light. The hidden lives of our prior experiences make mutual misunderstandings inevitable.  Human nature exacerbates the problem, with people falling into ‘in-crowds’ and ‘out-crowds’, retweeting and sub tweeting and eye rolling and argument by GIF. I believe some people even DM catty messages to each other about third parties.

However, today the better side of my nature is on the bridge and what follows is simply an attempt to genuinely help people understand what those of us who are advocating ‘traditional’ teaching mean. Or possible clear up what we don’t mean. Probably, the social media bubble being what it is, I am preaching to the choir but hey ho.

First of all, that word ‘traditional.’ The scope for misunderstanding this word, (and its rival ‘progressive’) is immense. There was a great blog this week about just this problem. If people had a bad experience of very formal education, the ‘traditional’ tag is like a red rag to a bull. But take heed, the word does not imply that everything back in the olden days was rosy and we should bring back the cane, sit four year olds in rows and bore children into a stupor. It’s used in contrast with the term ‘progressive.’  Progressive sounds so lovely, who doesn’t want to be progressive? But here, ‘progressive’ does not mean ‘the opposite of regressive’ but is rather a description of a philosophical tradition in which the writings of such people as Rousseau, John Dewey and Jean Piaget are foundational. For a fuller description, see Greg Ashman here.  Summarising self-proclaimed progressive Alfie Kohn, Greg Ashman describes progressive education as one where students help to direct the curriculum, students seek and find their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter. Traditional education, by way of contrast believes that teachers are experts in their subject and therefore they should design the curriculum and teach it explicitly. Traditional teaching believes that there is a ‘tradition’ of knowledge that students are entitled to.[4]

The second misunderstanding is that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[5] Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge. There is so much more to knowledge than just facts (as useful as they are).

People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge[6], and then again it is used for procedural knowledge.

The third misunderstanding is to think that traditionalist teachers are only interested in knowledge rather than understanding. Again this is quite wrong. What traditionalist teachers assert is that it is impossible to understand something unless you know something about it. This is because understanding, properly understood, is simply having lots of well organised knowledge that is connected together. I wrote about this recently in my previous blog so I won’t repeat that again here.  Understanding is literally made out of knowledge. So it is possible to know something without understanding it but it is not possible to understand something without knowing it. This diagram by Efrat Furst explains it well.

understanding model efrat Furst

The fourth common misunderstanding is to think that therefore, traditionalists think that lessons should be formal lectures where the lecturer does 99% of the talking, the learners role in the process inherently passive. This is not the case. The kind of explicit instruction most traditionalists favour – and like anything it is a broad church, so there will be differences in emphasis – is highly interactive.  It will involve questioning not just of the few eager clever clogs but of everybody present, through strategies such as ‘cold calling’, using mini whiteboards, individual exercises interspersing the teacher explanation. It might involve discussing things in pairs or even doing a short bit of drama. In a maths lesson, it might well involve children using manipulatives. What is more, it does not preclude the use of other ways of sharing the information other than a teacher talking (though this will be the most common way). A video clip might be used if it is a more effective way of explaining something – for example, an animation of the heart beating might well be a better way of explaining the role of the heart and lungs in the circulatory system than just a verbal description. Who wouldn’t show the clip of Commander David Scott  dropping a feather and a hammer at the same time on the moon to show that without air resistance, objects fall at the same rate.

Traditionalist teachers also follow up the explicit teaching phase with ‘shed loads of practice’ – gloriously shortened to SLOP. If learning is to stick, long term, it needs to be practised over and over, to the point where it becomes automatic and can be recalled without conscious effort. Some of this practice might even involve tightly planned opportunities to ‘discover’ aspects of what is being taught, for example, variation theory can be used to devise the kind of deliberate practice that helps learners notice patterns, similarities and differences. However, there would always be some sort of teacher commentary at some point to draw attention to things that might not have been noticed.

The final misunderstanding I am going to cover is the erroneous belief that traditionalist teachers adhere to a crude ‘transmission’ model and don’t realise that learners build – or construct – their learning on what they already know. Of course traditionalist teachers do believe they have a tradition worth sharing (or transmitting, though the word lacks nuance).  Whereas while traditionalist teacher eschew constructivist teaching, they are well aware of constructivist learning theories. Learners build on what they already know and construct meaning out of the connections formed between their established and new learning. See the point about understanding above. Efrat Furst explains this in more detail here.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that traditionalist teachers are more concerned about prior learning than progressive teachers because of the pivotal role prior learning plays in whether we understand or misunderstand something. Misunderstanding occurs when we connect bits of knowledge together in the wrong way. For example, if we know that addition can be done in any order so 2+3=5 and 3+2=5, when we learn about subtraction, we think that this also can be done in any order so think that 5-2=3 and 2-5=3. We’ve made a false connection between our new knowledge and our existing knowledge.

This is why questioning and other forms of formative assessment are so important to try and ascertain that the right connections are being made and to address misconceptions as soon as possible, before they become too established.  It is also why traditionalist teachers use explicit teaching that breaks knowledge down into very small sub steps to minimise the risk that wrong connections will be made. Traditionalist teachers are really aware of the ‘curse of knowledge’, the difficulty ‘experts’ have in realising how complicated something really is and therefore overwhelming students working memories by trying to teach too much at once. Indeed, in what is probably the ‘purist’ form of traditionalist teaching, the Direct Instruction method designed by Engelmann, concepts are meticulously broken down into minute sub steps, carefully explained and regularly practised so that the new learning has the best possible opportunity to connect to prior knowledge in the right way.

Aren’t labels funny. My husband swears he is a social constructivist, yet he does all this stuff. Maybe when we label ourselves or others, that is more about the group of people we want to belong to (or not belong to), more about the kind of people we believe ourselves to be.

[1] I’m not saying that there are not also honest to goodness, downright disagreements where people understand perfectly well what the other is saying. Such disagreements are (I think) often disagreements about what each other values. Possibly.

[2] Well that’s not quite what Harry said, but it’s how I connected it to what I already knew!

[3] Though I also click on people I am pretty sure I will disagree with too. Sometimes even with an open(ish) mind!

[4] Thanks to Andrew Old for this way of explaining it

[5] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

[6] With each discipline determining what is meant by the term, so terms mean different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

In praise of a prosaic curriculum

In case you’ve been living in an underground bunker for the last year or two, the curriculum is now a thing. More than that, it’s the next big thing in education. The new framework for inspection arriving in our schools from September 2019 will have the quality of the curriculum firmly in its sights. Intent, implementation and impact are set to become our new lodestar, possibly (fingers crossed) eclipsing sats and GCSE results at the centre of the school solar system.  Amanda Spielman has made it quite clear, mistaking ‘badges and stickers’ [the performance table success that comes with having great data] for learning and the substance of education, is a mistake, and one, presumably, that the new framework will seek to overcome. I do not under-estimate the massive culture shift involved, for both inspectors and schools. It’s nothing short of a revolution. (I wrote a blog about this a year ago; in terms of what actually happening in schools I don’t think much headway has been made in rearranging our priorities.)

Inevitably, in the build up to the new framework, various people, myself included, are offering training to schools about how to develop your curriculum. I’m seriously worried about some of the examples on offer.  For example, I heard about one school advertising that its amazing curriculum now had 60% of learning outside (and they weren’t talking about Early Years). Why is doing 60% of learning outside of itself a good thing, any more than doing 60% of learning indoors is a priori a good thing? Surely you decide this on a case by case basis? Pond dipping? Orienteering? That’ll be outside. How to use semi colons? Writing a paragraph about the Roman invasion of Britain? Probably inside. Learning does not become more durable or transferrable according to its location, though I would have thought for most learning having a regulated temperature and protection from the elements and flying insects, not to mention good acoustics, the facility to model ideas on a board of some sort and a surface upon which to write are all quite useful features.

I’ve heard of schools where ‘hooking’ the children into learning involved spending a whole day dressing up as Romans, and eating Roman food and so on. A whole day! Or another school where to build empathy with the homeless they spend the day (and possibly the night) camping on a field.  When reading and discussing Way Home would have achieved the same objective in 30 minutes. Personally I think the best hook is a teacher saying animatedly ‘You are going to love learning about the Romans!’ and then teaching it with passion, but if a school wants to spend 10 minutes on some sort of hook, so be it. But burning through whole day of precious curriculum time is just profligate! As if fitting everything into the limited time we have available to us was easy!

The mot du jour seems to be ‘exciting.’  All around me, schools are proclaiming how exciting their revised curriculum now is, as if ‘excitement’ were the substance of education. Alongside ‘exciting’, I also often hear that curriculums are ‘innovative’ and ‘engaging.’  Superficially, these sound like persuasive descriptions of great learning, especially if you contrast excitement with boredom, innovation with stagnation and engagement with distraction.[1] The problem with ‘excitement’ though, is that it’s not a great way to ensure the kind of learning that is durable in the longer term, or that transfers from one context to another. In other words, it might be fun at the time, but it is less likely to result in long term learning. In exciting lessons, you run the risk of remembering the excitement, rather than the learning. I’ve written before about the difference between episodic and semantic memory.  Let me recap the essential differences between the two.

Episodic memory is where we store the ‘episodes’ of our life, the narrative of our days. This is the autobiographical part of our memory that remembers the times, places and emotions that occur during events and experiences.  We don’t have to work hard or particularly concentrate to acquire episodic memories, they just happen whether we like it or not. When we talk about having fond memories or an event being memorable or exciting, we are talking about episodic memory. We are talking about something that happened, something where details of time, place and how we felt at the time are central.

Semantic memory, by contrast, is where we store information, facts, concepts.  These are stored ‘context-free’, that is, without the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired.  These type of memories take effort; we have to work to make them happen.  That might sound a bit boring, compared with episodic memory.  Yet it is our amazing ability to store culturally acquired learning in our semantic memory that makes as so successful as a species. Semantic memory is how we know stuff. Without it, human culture would not exist.

The problem with episodic memories is that while they may be acquired effortlessly, they come with several drawbacks in terms of acquiring skills and knowledge. Episodic memories come tagged with context. In the episodic memory, the sensory data – what a child saw and heard during a lesson – alongside their emotions, become part of the learning. These emotional and sensory cues are triggered when they try and retrieve an episodic memory. The problem being that sometimes they remember the contextual tags but not the actual learning. Episodic memory is so tied up with context it is no good for remembering things once that context is no longer present. Because it is context-bound, it does not transfer well to different contexts. Luckily our brains also have semantic memory. Semantic memories have been liberated from the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired. And once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, then it is more flexible and transferable between different contexts.

At this point, it is usual for people to say ‘but what about understanding? There’s no point having a load of facts if you don’t understand them.’  Which is of course true.  However, understanding happens in the semantic memory! Understanding is the word we use for when we have a well-developed schema for something – in other words, understanding is what happens when we have lots of well organised, connected knowledge, as opposed a handful of unconnected facts (or no facts). It’s the connections between facts that is understanding. When we misunderstand something, that is because we have made the wrong connections. For example we might have connected how the concept of value works in natural (counting) numbers with how value works in rational numbers such as fractions, and therefore think the bigger the denominator, the bigger the value of the fraction.  When we don’t understand something (as opposed to misunderstanding it), that is because we have not made enough connections yet. If we only know one or two facts about something, understanding is hard because the potential to make connections is so limited. Our two lonely facts may seem a bit meaningless. If however we know hundreds of different facts about a topic, that changes the nature of our thinking; we can now weave a rich web of understanding because there are so many connections that can be made.  Because of the wealth of connections, we can think deeply and creatively. Jo Facer has written an excellent blog expanding on this here.

This is why progression in a subject necessarily involves acquiring more knowledge. As more knowledge is acquired, more links are made; thinking is structured differently so more nuanced application is possible. Schools should be wary of curriculum packages that describe progression in terms of levels of learning (e.g. basic, advancing and deep) and spout nonsense such as progression involving ‘changing  the  nature  of  thinking  rather  than  just  acquiring  new  knowledge.’

Because understanding is literally made out of knowledge, it is possible to know something without understanding it, but you can’t understand it without knowing it. The onus on the teacher then is to carefully share their own schema step by step, explicitly describing/explaining/modelling the links and being alert for misconceptions. Indeed, assessment for learning – or responsive teaching as it is more appropriately called, involves checking for missing knowledge and misconceptions (wrongly connected knowledge) and remedying them when found.

This being the case, I would argue that the main substance  of education – the back bone of it, so to speak – is building strong semantic memory; the passing on and further development of the knowledge built up over centuries to the next generation; how to read and write, how stories work, how to use mathematical reasoning to solve problems, science with its amazing power to gives us to predict the future, how people in different times and places are so different and yet so similar, and the myriad of other concepts, ideas and practices.  We want children to understand concepts and facts rather than just remember events and experiences. Alongside this, we should also be building procedural memory (the memory of how to perform physical tasks and skills such as handwriting or riding a bike, or playing the piano).  Honing these skills – or procedural knowledge – comes down to regular practice, not to exciting, innovative experiences.

This building of semantic and procedural memory sounds terribly prosaic. What about critical thinking, problem solving and creativity I hear you ask? Why aren’t we teaching them? Surely this is what education is for – not just knowing stuff?

Again, I’d agree. Helping children grow into people who can think critically for themselves, who can solve problems and be creative is the ultimate goal of education.  However, we should not confuse the ends with the means. If we want children to be able to think critically and solve problems, then they need something to think critically with. For this they need knowledge, and the kind of flexible knowledge that is durable and transfers between contexts. This necessarily involves using semantic memories stored in the long term memory. If we want children to be creative and innovative, they need knowledge of the tradition upon which they are going to innovate.  You can’t really teach critical thinking as a detached skill; what you can do is teach various metacognitive strategies such as ‘consider both sides of an issue.’  Of course, this only helps if your students know what both sides are, so these metacognitive strategies need to be taught and applied within a specific context. In other words, teach someone about something and then give them opportunities to think critically about it. Don’t start off a programme of study with critical thinking or problem solving. Lay the ground work first, carefully and systematically building the requisite knowledge so that then students can apply their knowledge, using it to solve problems, possibly generating creative, novel solutions.

This building of semantic and procedural memory is not the only purpose of education, of course.  If it’s the backbone, then it will need further fleshing out. It’s just as important that we educate children to be emotionally literate and morally responsible and that will involve thinking about the kind of episodic memories we try and build for our children. We want some memories to come tagged with emotion. If we treat our children with kindness and respect, they will have episodic memories of what it was like to be treated kindly and respectfully, which makes it more likely they too will treat others with kindness and respect themselves.  If we want them to feel compassion for others, we will treat them with compassion.

Building of episodic memory is important for other reasons too.  Episodic memory encodes memories of our experiences, whatever they are. Another key purpose of education is to broaden the range of these everyday experiences so that we are lifted up out of our familiar and parochial context and gain the kind of perspective that comes from encountering new, different situations. Some children have very narrow life experiences, as this thoughtful blog by Debra Kidd testifies. Here’s an extract from it:

Hywel Roberts tells a story in his wonderful key notes about teaching in a school in Sheffield. The class are looking at town planning and urban developments, so as a way in, he asks them what they might find in a great city – if the city of Sheffield were to be redeveloped, what would they put there? One by one, the children list things the city should have – a Greggs, a BP Garage, a hairdressers called Streakers…they are describing their walk to school. For many of the children, their only experience of the city they live in is the walk to and from school. For those children and others like them, getting on a coach and going to a museum is about far, far more than remembering aspects of the curriculum. It can be literally life changing.

It is not only the most disadvantaged children who could benefit from experiencing wider horizons.  Plenty of children, particularly in they live in a city, might never have climbed a mountain or seen the sea, or even been to the local park. Rural children might never have been to a big city, let alone looked down on a cityscape from the top of a skyscraper or cathedral or castle turret.  Swathes of children might never have visited an art gallery or heard classical music or music from a different culture or been to the theatre or nature park or on a train or in a boat or even gone away on holiday, beyond visiting relatives.  This is why schools such as Hartford Manor have a curriculum pledge that builds in a range of experiences – dare I say, exciting experiences – into their curriculum as an entitlement. See this blog by Loic Menzies which articulates how life enhancing he found the rich opportunities he had for outdoor adventure as a child and why he believes all children should have such opportunities.

Other, superficially more advantaged children may also have limited life experiences. They might never have properly encountered people who live in different socio-economic circumstances, for example and so have no idea how challenging it is to live a life of grinding poverty. Or they might live within a mono-culture, never meeting people from different cultures or traditions. With adults increasing living in narrow social media bubbles, rarely encountering people who think differently from them, it is all the more important that education broadens out all children’s horizons and enriches all communities. In other words, curriculums need to be planned to foster spiritual, moral, social and cultural development as well as knowledge acquisition.  This will require attending to both episodic and semantic memory formation.  A carefully planned programme of experiences that compliments and reinforces the super abundance of SMSC inherent in a rounded study of history, literature, art, music, RE, geography, MFL, maths, science, PE, PHSE and so on should provide this.

So if I’m all in favour of building procedural learning, opportunities to apply knowledge in critical thinking and with creativity, to emotional literacy and moral responsibility, and experiences that broaden horizons as well as education that builds semantic memory, what exactly is my problem and why am I banging on about a prosaic curriculum?[2]

This is because there is a world of difference between planning a set of experiences that consciously address the specific kind of narrowness that a school’s particular context creates and believing that excitement per se is a good enough reason for inclusion on the curriculum.  Providing experiences just because children might find them exciting and enjoyable is not a great reason to allocate them precious curriculum time. (Which is not to say they can never happen, just that they should be the rare exception rather than the rule).  Nor is this to say lessons must be dull and uninspiring. That’s just as bad.  There is a middle ground between a curriculum that panders to a craving for ever more excitement and is preoccupied with novelty and gimmicks and a dismally boring, dry as dust snooze-fest. Something solid and prosaic, something with enough cognitive challenging to be absorbing. The engagement comes from the subject matter itself and the feeling of satisfaction one feels after a bit of struggle.  Easy success isn’t rewarding; earned success is motivating.

When I use the word prosaic, I am not using it to mean dull and boring, but to mean ordinary, everyday, usual, familiar, regular, customary, typical, bread-and-butter – stuff that isn’t ‘sexy’ or glamorous or flashy, but that forms the bedrock of what we do in schools. Some of this is the stuff that forms the foundation upon which more interesting stuff depends. Learning to read, to add and subtract, learning number facts and times tables, to use punctuation and spell correctly, handwriting; basic, humdrum everyday stuff, no bells and whistles, the stuff of learning, this should be at the heart of our curriculums because without it, nothing else is possible. Sometimes derided and sneered at, often looked down upon, let’s hear a cheer for the workaday workhorse of education.

I sometimes see on Twitter teachers moaning that phonics is tedious and the decodable early readers are boring. Which is to completely miss the point – they aren’t intended to be great works of literature, they are intended to teach children to read (so that they can go on to read great works of literature).  Teaching phonics is as tedious as you want it to be. Young children love learning to do ‘grown up’ things like reading, and if you show how excited and impressed you are that children can now blend p-i-n, then they will be excited and impressed with themselves too. That’s where the engagement comes in, with the success. The lesson isn’t meant to entertain the teacher after all, it’s meant to develop the child and some of them things that help a child develop, especially early on, are pretty prosaic. The sentence ‘Clap, clap, clap on the big, red bus,’ is not, of itself, desperately interesting. However, being able to turn all those squiggles into actual words that make up a sentence is amazing! Criticising a decodable reader because of its limited story line is like telling a babbling baby their conversation is boring. To the ‘phonics is boring’ brigade I say, ‘stop raining on the children’s parade!’ If you are not delighted and enthused by helping young children take their first steps on the reading journey, then you are in the wrong job. (Or wrong phase, perhaps).

Then there is also the content, the knowledge, the substance that we want to teach; knowing where countries are on a map of the world or what a force is or what the industrial revolution was or what the 5 pillars are or what irrigation means. Content that is taught and practised and revisited so that the learning is durable. So that it can be transferred in different contexts and used in critical thinking. If we want children to think critically about arguments around immigration, it helps to know where different countries are in relation to one another. If we want children to think critically about the engineering challenges inherent in a mission to Mars, it helps to know about force and gravity. If we want children to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of industrialisation for an economically developing country, knowledge of the industrial revolution will provide a useful way in. If Britain developed in the 19th century by exploiting our resources and workers, are we right to condemn other countries for doing the same now in the 21st century? If we want to have an informed understanding of Islam rather than one tainted with ill-informed Islamaphobic histrionics, understanding the importance of the 5 pillars for Muslims is a necessary but not sufficient starting point. If we want children to think responsibly about natural resources, knowing about water use and the benefits and pitfalls of irrigation is vital.  The knowledge we teach forms the “teeth” in the gears of understanding. Without knowledge, understanding cannot gain any traction.   Such content is inherently interesting in the hands of a skilful teacher, it does not need sugar coating with gimmicks in order to make it palatable.

There is a misconception that this entails a ‘lecture’ form of lesson, with children meekly listening for long periods of time to their teacher. This is not at all what I am advocating. Rather, I am suggesting (courtesy of Greg Ashman) that the majority of lessons have four main features. They are planned and led by the teacher, who makes conscious choices about the sequence of learning, the content is broken down into small steps with children learning how to do each individual step well before the steps are brought together into task that require the sub steps to be integrated all at once, concepts are fully explained – children do not have to ‘discover’ it all by themselves and finally teaching is highly interactive with everybody required to participate throughout the lesson.[3] I’d also add in that they frequently revisit previous learning with regular retrieval practice so that memory of previously taught content is strengthened. Such lessons are usually calm rather than dull or whacky.

Towards the end of a sequence of such lessons, I’d advocate opportunities to apply what has been learnt.  At this stage, the child integrates the sub steps in some way with less explicit teacher direction. There are a myriad of ways this could be done, from writing an essay to goal free problem solving to pursuing one’s own line of inquiry to doing a test to making a model or creating some art work.[4]

However, anything can be done to death.   Having a template lesson structure is one thing, clinging to it come hell or high water is another. Occasionally mixing up the structure – for example – using a Mantle of the Expert approach once in a while or doing some sort of whizzy experiment or workshop provides variety and counterpoint.   Just don’t confuse this with the prosaic core.




[1] Though you could also contrast over-excitement with calmness, gimmicky innovation with tried and tested methods and superficial engagement with the medium of the lesson as opposed to focused absorption on the core content.

[2] Yes, it’s beginning to sound a bit like the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch from the life of Brian.

[3] This list comes from Greg Ashman’s excellent new book, chapter 5, The Truth about Teaching, sage Publications 2018

[4] Though I’d be wary if the final project ate into too much curriculum time. I’d go for an 80:20 or 90:10 balance. So making a claymation video about embalming mummies would not be a good use of time, unless you believed learning how to do claymation was as itself an important part of the art/computing curriculum. Great for an after school club though.

In praise of a prosaic curriculum